Take a Breath

I’ve been taking walks every day since returning home from surgery on February 25th.  I started with 5-minute strolls in the house, moving from room to room. The scenery got boring quickly, but there was a sense of satisfaction that I could move through space – at all.  

Four days in, I walked up and down the stairs. And while I would not characterize that as an accomplishment comparable to that of Sir Edmund Hillary, I did pause at the summit for a breath, and for a quick prayer of shehechiyanu. My goals in recovery, small and gradual, were in my power to achieve. 

On day 8, Rachel, my visiting physical therapist, arrived as part of my post op team. At some point I will give a shout out to my PT and the visiting nurse and… well, the cast of professionals at Beth Israel and those who came to my home to push me forward gently and to keep an eye on my vitals.  Anyway, my PT suggested we go for a walk.

As we strolled along, Rachel stopped, looked at me and said, “You’re hunching over as you walk, and your shoulders are up around your ears. Many post-op bypass people walk like that; it’s your body going into protective posture. But now I want you to consciously change that: stand up straight, drop your shoulders, and take a deep breath.” 

I endeavor to be the quintessential good patient, so I did as she suggested. I just let my shoulders drop. “Now take a deep breath, hold it, then release,” she instructed.

In that moment, still learning the vagaries of my post-op body, my limitations in it, as well as the  DNA-driven need to protect it, something deeply profound occurred. Doing the simplest things imaginable: relaxing my shoulders and taking a breath, created a dramatic surge of endorphins that swept over me. An immeasurable sense of well-being filled my soul. 

The decision to relax my shoulders and breathe was not magical or shamanic. I’ve made bigger decisions in my life… But there was something particularly consequential to it. I understood why I felt so tensed up, so physically defended. But that very understandable concern blocked another possibility: that I could untense, take a deep breath, and reframe my place in the world. Yes, I was operated on. Yes, my sternum was wired back together. Yes, I was so sore.

And – yes, I can accept that as all true and real and then anticipate feeling better as time slowly passes. It’s my choice, my decision.

I’ve largely stopped reading the prognosticators’ accounts of the future of the world in light of Covid19. There’s no good to be found in the projections and the gloomy assessments. It will be what it will be. We have no control over that. The prognosticators only true product is angst. I don’t want any of it, any more than is my own daily portion.

Just tell me the rules: where I can go, what I can do, who I can see, how far I have to stand back, what I can do to make others’ lives better, how I can help. I’d build ventilators in my garage if I could – but I can’t. I’d develop a vaccine, but I don’t know how. So, I’m going to be the best possible dad and grandfather and husband and uncle that I can be. I’m going to figure out how to be the best TBA rabbi I can be in cyberspace.

And I’m going to drop my shoulders and take a breath. And you do it, too, even if it’s for 30 seconds. Send some healing to your frayed soul. Let your body take care of you. It won’t make everything all better. But it will remind you of the peaceful presence of your soul, the goodness you contain, and the promise of a new day.

Shabbat Shalom


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